On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex and gender remains illegal by law. However, the United States has made little effort to prevent de facto discrimination in sports from institutions receiving federal funding when it comes to fan attendance and viewership.
And those issues exist throughout each and every level of women’s sports.
When I was in high school I played on the women’s soccer team. Our team was great. In the three seasons I spent on the team, we reached at least the semifinals of the city playoffs. In my final year we made it all the way to the finals.
But every year we lacked one thing: fans.
No one wanted to come see us blowout our opponents 10-0 or beat our rivals in an overtime thriller. No amount of posters, emails, social media posts, or cookie bribes could convince the student body to watch the girls soccer team dominate the competition. Winning games without anyone in the stands except a few enthusiastic parents was disheartening.
When I was little, it didn’t matter — I loved soccer and that was all that mattered to me, it was my favorite hobby. My parents were my cheerleaders and I wasn’t old enough to know what I was missing.
And that’s not uncommon for other girls growing up. Most young female athletes don’t know what it feels like to have masses of screaming fans propel them to victory, and even at the professional level, the majority of female athletes don’t know that feeling.
In lacking that support, female athletes are missing out on a key pillar of sports: the connection with fans.
Part of the joy professional athletes feel in their sports is the exhilaration of the crowd. Hearing fans cheer them on motivates them to play harder and better. It’s a luxury that’s not afforded to female athletes.
Often at Michigan, fans must be bribed with free t-shirts and hats for the first 100 attendees on top of the already free entry tickets. At the No. 23 women’s tennis teams regular season finale, you were hard pressed to find any fans aside from parents.
Even the Wolverines’ women’s basketball team — who made the Elite Eight for the first time in program history – offered all students free attendance to fill the stands and enact real home court advantage in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
If colleges fail to improve viewership for women’s sports – especially at Universities with student bodies riddled with school spirit – it’s no surprise that professional sports face a similar lack of support.
Female athletes are paid significantly less — which is often attributed to a lack of viewership and fanbase — than their male counterparts. Christian Pulisic, USMNT and Chelsea FC player, makes more in a single month than the highest paid United States Women’s National Team player, Alex Morgan, makes in a year.
Out of the top-50 highest paid athletes only two women, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, make the list. But less than 3% of their earnings are attributed to on-the-field pay, the rest of the figure comes from endorsements and brand deals.
In recent years the popularity of women’s sports has increased but the pay hasn’t followed suit. The USWNT became well known in the last few years with players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan becoming household games. Their games sell out and their jersey sales are through the roof, all while showing young girls — who, similarly to me, grow up with a love for sports but a lack of support — that sports are for girls too. They have found their place as a powerhouse winning World Cups and Olympic medals left right and center, while their male counterparts struggled to find similar success.
Yet, it wasn’t until last month that the USWNT received equal pay to the US Men’s National Team on a per-game fee and bonus structure rather than salary. Given that the USWNT is the most successful international women’s soccer team in history and continues to dominate the field, they should be paid more than the male athletes that lack the same impressive resume. Although the USMNT has never won the World Cup or any Olympic medal, and failed to even qualify in 2018. But their pay never faltered and their performance bonuses were still larger than the women’s. In the old contract structure, the USMNT received $2.5 million for World Cup qualification while the USWNT got $750,000.
As a little girl, I looked up to the USWNT and I wanted to be like them. They showed me that women’s soccer could be just as entertaining and competitive as the men, if not more. As they won medal after medal — all while taking women’s sports to another level — it gave me motivation to play soccer with the same intensity and drive.
And the USWNT’s disproportionate salary isn’t rare. Most other sports are having trouble filling the gap and gaining more support and fandom for their female athletes.
The flashy lifestyle major male athletes achieve with luxury cars, mansions and private jets is rarely attainable for women. And while Title IX ensures that women can play sports, there’s still a long way to go beyond the ability to participate.
We play sports because we love them. We play because of the way every ace and goal makes us feel. We play because of the way every win reverberates through us — not because of the potential fame and riches.
But it wouldn’t hurt to hear the fans cheer for us, to celebrate our victories and mourn our losses. And the USWNT offers an example of how to get there.